Writing Lives: the Jebb marriage

Richard_Claverhouse_Jebb MP, known as 'Ajax'. Vanity Fair, 1904

Bacchylides was of placid temper; amiably tolerant; satisfied with a modest lot; not free from some tinge of that pensive melancholy which was peculiarly Ionian’ (‘The Life of Bacchylides’, Richard Claverhouse Jebb, 1905)

In 1905 Cambridge University Press published the first English translation of poems by Bacchylides, with an introductory essay about the Greek lyric poet’s life. The author and translator, Sir Richard Claverhouse Jebb, was considered by many to be the most brilliant classical scholar of his time, and his seven-volume edition of Sophocles was widely celebrated. He was Regius Professor of Greek at Cambridge University and its Member of Parliament  (where he was nicknamed ‘Ajax’ after Sophocles’s tragic hero); he accepted a British knighthood in 1900, and was appointed to the Order of Merit in June 1905. A month later he and a group of academics sailed to South Africa with the British Association to promote its scientific and literary work. It was an exhausting and demanding lecture tour, and Richard’s health was not strong. He returned to Cambridge in October with a high fever, and died on 9 December 1905 at the age of sixty-four.

13 December 1905, Wednesday. Funeral. Sunshine through a veil of mist… Ah, my dearest.’ (Diary of Caroline Jebb)

Richard’s death came as a shock to his American wife Caroline Jebb, then sixty-five, but her next move was obvious: she would write her husband’s biography. In this she was following in the footsteps of two of her friends, both members of her ladies’ dining club. Louise Creighton’s two-volume biography of Mandell Creighton, published in 1904, was praised by many, including Lytton Strachey. Eleanor (Nora) Sidgwick was busy co-authoring a memoir of her husband Henry, who had died in 1900. In January 1906 Caroline set to work. Richard had done much of the preparation for her already, having compiled scrapbooks in which he pasted letters, reviews, excerpts from his speeches and newspaper cuttings about himself. All she had to do was to choose what to include.

Weighty biographies of great men were plentiful throughout the nineteenth century, and in many cases they were written by people who were close to their subjects, such as a wife, sibling, son or daughter. This presented the home-grown biographer with a paradox. The ideal biography was, it was believed, conscientious in its gathering of documents and deeply respectful in tone. It should be heavy on its subject’s achievements, and light on their personal failings. Undignified anecdotes were avoided, and most of all, the biographer’s own personality and feelings should be suppressed at all times.

‘Read no history: nothing but biography, for that is life without theory’ Disraeli, 1832

To modern readers, the apparently respectful, authoritative ‘Lives‘ that fill the library’s dustier shelves reveal, on closer inspection, interesting hidden narratives about the people who wrote them. Mandell Creighton’s biography was written partly to defend his posthumous reputation from his critics and yet, almost accidentally, his widow lets slip his shortcomings as husband and father. Although Eleanor Sidgwick seems to choose humble self-effacement in her memoir of her husband (by never directly referring to herself), her absence only reinforces the reader’s sense of her supreme self-confidence in the central role she played in their shared life and work towards women’s education in Cambridge.

From her family letters we know that Caroline Jebb was a discerning and enthusiastic reader of literary biographies, and she was influenced by Leslie Stephen, the Dictionary of National Biography’s first editor and, until his death in 1904, a friend of both Jebbs. Like Stephen, she wanted to avoid what Thomas Carlyle called a ‘Dryasdust’ approach to biography, in which the traditional biographer was at pains to present his or her subject in the most reverential light. J.A. Froude’s edition of Carlyle’s posthumous Reminiscences (1881) was criticized for being too revealing about the Carlyles’ unhappy marriage, but Caroline found it fascinating. ‘I can’t help thinking Froude must have slipped in thing or two unmarked by Carlyle for publication’, she told her sister.  ‘Would I have mended his trousers while he was off amusing himself with Lady Harriet Baring? I would not.’ She had misgivings about John Cross’s ‘not altogether attractive Life’ of his famous wife but it gave her an insight into George Eliot’s ‘enormous mental industry. To read about her work took my breath away’.

In her Life and Letters of Sir Richard Claverhouse Jebb, published in 1907, Caroline did not attempt to disguise her own authorial presence or her less than perfect marriage. She places herself in the first paragraph by adding a detail that only she could know. Describing Richard’s happy childhood in County Dublin, she depicts him as a boy who was both quick-tempered and highly sensitive. ‘A look of disapproval from his mother made him miserable: to disappoint anyone who loved him was all his life intolerable to him. “Dick sorry; forgive your Dick” was a phrase not confined to childhood.’ Instantly we have an insight into the Jebbs’ marriage: his quick temper and remorse; her amused tolerance. She suppresses information about his tendency to drink too much (which contributed to his poor health), but later in the bookshe  is humorous about his inability to manage money. ‘He never knew how much he had with him, or counted his change at railway stations’ she writes. ‘It filled him with a sort of disgust when less high-minded people – his wife to wit – assumed the existence of dishonesty’.

We get the impression of a real marriage with real arguments, and a man who, for all his achievements, was not always easy to live with. As Richard himself wrote in 1905, even Bacchylides suffered from ‘pensive melancholy’ sometimes, and some people might have considered Sophocles’s Ajax to be a bad loser.

Sources: Caroline Jebb, Life and Letters of Sir Richard Claverhouse Jebb (Cambridge University Press, 1907); Mary Reed Bobbitt With Dearest Love to All: The Life and Letters of Lady Jebb (London: Faber, 1960); Oxford Dictionary of National Biography